I was working with a student on a mock alumni interview a few weeks ago and threw this practice question out to her: “What is the hardest thing you’ve ever done?” Her immediate response? “Apply for college!” Of course, I advised her not to use this answer, should she encounter the question with a real interviewer. The truth is, however, that applying for college is a big job and requires you to think, write, and present yourself in ways you probably never have before. Is meeting (and exceeding) the challenge worth the effort? Definitely.
Because the admissions process involves so many different components, when you are completing your application, you are creating a multifaceted academic and personal profile. This profile, in its parts and as a whole, serves as your “sales pitch” to an admissions officer. Admissions officers know what they are looking for. To them, each part means something. Yet more important is how your admissions profile works as a whole. Are the parts complementary? Does each facet reflect something new about you? Does the whole present a dynamic and unique personality? If you can answer these questions affirmatively, then an admissions officer will surely get to know you. Below is an explanation of the significance of each part of your admissions profile.
Standardized test scores: Your standardized test scores usually serve as a baseline indication of your competitiveness. Each school works with a mean SAT/ACT score particular to that school. If your score meets or exceeds the mean, you will be considered for admission. If your score is well below the mean, your application will probably be discounted. If it is just under the mean, your application will be considered. SAT II subject tests reveal more about you. Schools will look at the subjects you’ve chosen in relation to your chosen course of study, and they will be especially impressed if you’ve taken subject tests you have not had a class in. Doing so demonstrates initiative and intellectual intensity. The same goes for AP exams.
GPA: Your GPA is extremely important. A strong GPA reveals diligence and an ability to handle a variety of subjects. If you do well in math and science but not in English, your application will reveal a weakness in critical thinking, an indication that you do not think reflectively. Even if you are aiming to be an engineer, strong critical thinking and writing skills are considered essential and will make a difference in your chances for acceptance. Alternatively, if you are strong in the humanities but weak in math and science, your application may be compromised in this digitally-driven world. Then there is the issue of what your weighted GPA says about you (if your school has a weighting system). To take an example, if you have a 4.2 weighted GPA but a 3.5 unweighted GPA, this means that you received some B’s in your AP classes but got the extra points for taking them anyway. While taking these AP courses reveals your ambition, it may negatively reflect on your decision-making skills and compromise your competitiveness. If you have a 4.4 weighted GPA and a 4.0 unweighted GPA, your set of grades reflects academic strength combined with good choices.
Classes: Although not mentioned in the question, the classes you have chosen to take throughout high school additionally say something about you. If your school offers many honors and AP courses but you have not taken that many, it will look like you did not take advantage of the many opportunities available to you. On the other hand, if you attend a school that does not provide many advanced classes and have pursued them on your own at a local college or through self-study for an AP or SAT II exam, your choices and achievements will impress your reader. It is also important to know that admissions officers assess your formal academic profile in relation to the school you have attended. In other words, they will look at the larger context of your academic performance.
Extracurricular Activities: Being engaged in activities outside of the classroom has become an extremely important indicator of an applicant’s character. The most successful list of extracurriculars includes demonstrated commitment to activities or causes through steady, multi-year participation. If you’ve joined 10 clubs but have not stuck with them, you will present yourself as someone without direction. But if you have soared through Speech and Debate competitions over the years, effectively revamped your Korean club, or excelled at a sport over a significant period of time (and perhaps even coached younger kids all the while!), you will show yourself to be someone who uses your free time wisely and deliberately. Better yet would be an activity that you conceived, established, and executed. Admissions officers love students who show initiative and leadership. And even better would be an activity initiated by you that has social value. The dream student is one who possesses creative and strategic vision, leadership qualities, and a commitment to the social good.
Essays: It is in your essays that you can most powerfully communicate who you are to a university and shine as an individual. When mired with applications, all with similar GPAs, exam scores, and an activities profiles that are of equal merit, admissions officers rely on your essays to find a distinguishing mark. The essay is your big chance to display your thoughtfulness, strength, value, character, and above all, your unique voice. Almost any admissions essay, no matter how stern and academic it might seem, allows for great strategic and creative leeway. Go for it! Be clever or sensitive or funny, share insights or lessons learned, show your reader what you’ve got to offer to a world much larger than your high school. The essay or essays play a very important role in admissions decisions. If the rest of your profile is excellent but your essays are drab, you might very well be rejected by a school you are competitive for; this kind of admissions profile may present you as someone who does everything right but cannot think creatively or deeply. On the other hand, the essay can compensate for shortcomings in other parts of your profile. If you received a C in physics but can tell a hilarious and insightful story about it, you will be imparting a great deal of information to your reader. Wow your reader, write something that sticks, and university doors will open. For more tips on writing the personal essay, see my September post.